Cardinals: Is Jake Woodford on the Way?

Mar 21, 2019; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Woodford (80) delivers a pitch to the New York Yankees during a spring training game at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

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On Wednesday, the Cardinals gave IF/OF Drew Robinson his outright release, removing him from the 40-man roster. Considering that Robinson is out for the season, following elbow surgery, and that he wasn’t likely to be part of future plans anyway, it was a relatively inconsequential move.

What is interesting about it is the timing, as the opening on the 40-man comes just days before rosters expand in September. So we are left to wonder who may be called in to fill the void.

WARNING: Speculation ahead.

The sense among fans and media on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon was that RHP Jake Woodford would be the choice. Considering he had just allowed only 2-hits over 5 innings on Tuesday night, the release of Robinson, the very next day, certainly seems to be related to Woodford.

This makes a lot of sense on 2 fronts.

  1. Woodford would be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter if he were left off of the 40-man roster. The Cardinals were going to add him to protect him anyway, so doing it now or in November makes no difference.
  2. The Cardinals can benefit from an additional arm to help cover innings. As I documented in a post regarding September call-ups, the only healthy non-MLB pitchers on the 40-man are Junior Fernandez, Genesis Cabrera, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Austin Gomber.

Woodford, along with Ponce de Leon and Ryan Helsley, would give the Cardinals a nice stable of multi-inning pitchers to help cover short starts and blowouts, or just to generally preserve the late-inning pitchers as they move through September.

Now, if you are wondering why it’s been 24 hours and he hasn’t been added to the 40-man, consider that the team has a day-off on Thursday and a double-header on Saturday. More than likely, the move for Woodford would occur on Saturday the 31st, as he would be added as the team’s 26th man for the twin-billing and available out of the bullpen with 3 days of rest. Conveniently, the calendar would then turn to September, allowing him to stay as a call-up on the expanded roster.

So What Is Woodford All About

With the roster and role covered, let’s dig into what Woodford has done this season and what he is all about as a pitching prospect.

First the background.

After the Cardinals busted by picking Nick Plummer with their 1st round pick (23rd overall — 1 spot ahead of Dodgers stud Walker Buehler, ouch) they move on to select Woodford out of Plant High School in Tampa, FL at #39 overall during the Competitive Balance round. (Note: they also nabbed Harrison Bader, Jordan Hicks, Paul DeJong, and Ryan Helsley in rounds 3-5 of this draft, which really helped make up for the Plummer bust.)

Below is an overview of Woodford’s minor league career.

As you can see, he progressed solidly through the lower levels before hitting turbulence in the hitter-friendly Texas and Pacific Coast leagues in 2018. However, it’s worth noting that Woodford has been a little younger than the competition at every level. Consider that generally less than 10% of AA players are 21 or younger, while less than 5% of AAA players fall into that age group. Woodford was definitely in the minority last season.

Even at 22 in 2019, he is still younger than most AAA competition as less than 10% of players fall into that group. (For more context on minor league age, check out this post from Fangraphs.)

Among 53 pitchers to log at least 80 innings in the PCL this season, Woodford and teammate Genesis Cabrera are the only 22-year olds on the list.

Despite that, Woodford ranks:

  • 6th in ERA (3.95)
  • 3rd in Innings Pitched (145.2)
  • 3rd in Opponent Batting Average (.217)
  • 21st in K% (20%)
  • 21 in FIP (5.60)

He is doing very well consider his age and the fact that the PCL, an already hitter-friendly league, is using the juiced MLB ball this season. It’s been tough on pitchers and Woodford has survived, and even improved.

Improvement

I’m going to lean on the work of others for the rest of this piece, with my intention being to compile information from a few sources to give a quick overview.

Now, I turn to my former colleague from the now-defunct Redbird Daily — current Birds on the Black and Prospect After Dark superstar — Kyle Reis to talk on the topic. (For Cardinals minor leaguers, you can’t beat the passion and effort Kyle puts into the coverage.)

First, I’ll share Kyle’s write-up on Woodford for his pre-season rankings, when he had Woodford at #19.

The Dirty Thirty-Five: Prospect #19 Jake Woodford

Next is the link to Kyle’s overview on Woodford for his mid-season prospect ranks, for which he moved him up to #10 in the system. I encourage you to follow the link and read the full overview.

Mid-Season Dirty Thirty-Five: Prospect #10 Jake Woodford

A couple bullet points from the mid-season overview:

  • Woodford has shown sustained velocity improvement on his fastball.
  • He has shown dramatic improvement with his curveball.
  • These pitch improvements have helped fuel an improved K%
  • His high walk-rate is concerning, but Kyle believes it relates more to pitching more on the edges than a true command issue.

This is how Kyle wraps up his mid-season look:

Woodford has done some amazing work in his pursuit of a future rotation spot with the Cardinals. Nearly everything is trending in the right direction. There’s still development to be had, and I’m anxious to see what his personal ceiling looks like.

Additional Scouting / Prospect Rankings

Here’s where Woodford lands in various 2019 prospect rankings:

The consensus seems to be fair that he is a mid-teen prospect in the system.

Except for Fangraphs, oddly not even putting him in the Top 40, which I had to investigate.

For Fangraphs, Woodford checked in at #18 in the Cardinals system in 2017, only to fall out of their Top 23 in 2018, and out of their Top 40 in 2019.

Here’s what Eric Longenhagen had to say at the end of 2017:

Woodford’s stuff – he was up to 95 in high school – has backed up. He’s now mostly 89-92 and his slider lacks the once-promising bite it displayed while he was in high school. Woodford’s changeup still has some fade to it and projects to average, but overall what was once a sinker/slider No. 4 starter profile looked more like an up-and-down arm in 2017.

That tracks with the velocity level Kyle talked about prior to the improvements in 2019, but it seems that Longenhagen soured on Woodford after 2017 and he saw nothing in 2018 to warrant further inclusion.

On a more positive note, this is what MLB Pipeline had to say going into 2019:

Woodford pitches with average velocity, with a four-seamer that tops out at around 94 mph, but his ability to sink his two-seamer and his command of the pitch make it play up. It leads to a lot of contact but few whiffs, underscoring his smaller margin for error, and his heater can be very hittable when left up in the zone — something upper-level hitters capitalized on in 2018. His changeup is solid average, and his slider, while inconsistent, might get to Major League average as well.

Scouts noted that Woodford dialed back his aggressiveness in 2018, as he would nibble at the corners too much with his fastball and become very predictable with his sequencing after falling behind in the count. The Cardinals are confident that he’ll make the necessary adjustments in his approach to overcome those tendencies, citing his work ethic and competitiveness as reasons to believe the young right-hander eventually will put it all together en route to the Major Leagues.

I find the 2nd paragraph to be interesting and I think it pairs well with Kyle’s assessment of his improvements. Kind of a before-and-after look from two different sets of eyes.

Wrap-Up

All-in-all, Woodford has the making of a solid, but not flashy pitching prospect. With the previous promotions of Fernandez, Helsley, and Cabrera, he is certainly the next pitcher in the prospect chain.

While it remains to be seen how much use he will get or how well he will perform, it is always exciting to see a new Cardinal come along. This is especially true for a pitcher that has been touted as supremely gifted, but has yet to put it all together. You never know when it might click, and he is still just 22.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Fangraphs for the stats. Thanks to all the prospect ranks for doing their thing. Thanks to Kyle for being awesome.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals8667.562 -
Brewers8370.5423.0
Cubs8271.5364.0
Reds7281.47114.0
Pirates6588.42521.0

Last updated: 09/20/2019

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